Getting there is half the fun

Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr may be the stars of the classic move An Affair to Remember, but the luxury ocean liner that brought the couple together in the middle of the Atlantic certainly played a critical supporting role. “Could there be a more glamorous and romantic setting for a film?” asks Daniel Finamore, PEM’s Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History. “It certainly captured people’s imaginations.”


G. B. Conti, “On the Sports Deck” in Augustus – Navigazione Generale Italiana, about 1927–28, printed brochure. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Howard Galvin Steamship Ephemera Collection © Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Allison White.

Once known for carrying thousands of impoverished people to America in search of a better life, ocean liners became a symbol of luxury, style and sophistication in the 20th century. Within a decade, transatlantic steamship travel was transformed in the public imagination from a dangerous, dirty and sickening experience into a highly desirable and glamorous leisure activity.

Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style is the first exhibition to look beyond the nostalgia the ships evoke and explore the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner -  from the successful marketing campaigns created by the major shipping companies to the innovative engineering, opulent interiors and the lifestyles of its rich and famous passengers.

Drawing from the museum’s collection, international institutions and private lenders, PEM’s new exhibition is co-organized with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Artists in Germany, waterline model of Bremen, about 1931–33, wood and metal. Gift of Leon Lawrence Sidell, 1969, M13662. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Walter Silver.

As the largest moving objects ever built, ocean liners became a symbol of human progress and a platform for creativity.

This groundbreaking exhibition, which brings together elements of interior ship design that have never been exhibited before, features more than 200 works from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century, including paintings, sculpture, models, furniture, lighting, wall panels, textiles, fashion, photographs, posters and film, to explore an era when ocean liners ruled the sea.

Competitiveness in private industry grew into competitions for national prestige; the French liner Normandie was promoted as the most elegant in the world, with different parts of the ship crafted to reflect distinct French provinces. Each new liner sought to be larger, faster and more brilliantly envisioned than its predecessor. Top-tier artisans were commissioned to create the finest elegant designs and artworks for these floating palaces, and did so while reflecting the taste, sensibility and politics of their time.

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Sighing for SS Normandie in lacquer and bronze by Gaston Suisse on loan from Musee des Annees 30 for Ocean Liners. Photo by Sarah Chasse, @sass1837 on Instagram.

By the 1910s major shipping lines were competing in the hopes of attracting wealthy American passengers. The exhibition reveals how passengers, seeking relief from boredom and distraction from the rocky seas, found entertainment in rooms modeled after grand hotels, gentlemen’s clubs and aristocratic homes. They emphasized splendor, luxury and comfort, offering the experiences of a Tudor smoking room, a grand Pompeian-style swimming pool, an Art-Deco Parisian apartment and a Romanesque castle.


F. Earl for Henri Fichon, Paris, Design for a poster for the White Star Line and Moët & Chandon, about 1912, oil on canvas. Museum purchase, 2014.13.1. Photo by Kathy Tarantola.

“Every amenity was designed as an enticement to get people on board,” says Finamore. “First-class accommodations, fancy food, well-decorated rooms, were all created as a diversion from the reality of your situation, which was queasiness from rocking over big waves in the middle of the ocean.”


René Herbst. first-class steel cabin design, 1935. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, LIBVM382-. C335-1935. Photo by Jarrod Staples.

Dinner, particularly in first class, was the principal social moment of any day at sea. The division of social space was an art form and evenings were spent in dining rooms with central staircases that enabled dramatic entrances and mezzanines with sight lines to other “important” diners. Theater companies promoted the arrival and departure of stage actors traveling between New York and London. Journalists and the public would crowd the docks to see their favorite stars.

In later years, newspapers listed notable passengers and encouraged the pageantry, helped by the Hollywood marketing machine, which presented the comings and goings of film stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor fashionably posed, and, of course, impeccably dressed.

The exhibition also features an array of ocean liner fashion through time, including bathing suits, evening gowns, tuxedos and even a dashing bellhop uniform from a French shipping line.


Jenny Sacerdote (Jeanne-Adèle Bernard) for Jenny of Paris, dress, about 1926, silk, gold lamé, and glass beading. Gift of Mrs. Sanford S. Clark, 1971, 132655. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Walter Silver

“No form of transport was as romantic, remarkable or contested as the ocean liner and their design became a matter of national prestige as well as a microcosm of global dynamics and competition,” says Finamore. “Through this exhibition people will hopefully discover what an amazing experience ocean liner travel must have been, how important these ships were culturally and nationally as messengers and artistic statements, and how carefully and intentionally designed interiors can affect us emotionally and express our personal values.”

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Tynecastle wall covering from V&A Museum installed in Ocean Liners. Photo by Sarah Chasse, @sass1837 on Instagram.

Explore the allure and distinct personalities behind these man-made islands at sea. Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style is on view from May 20-October 9, 2017.

Join us for the Ocean Liners Opening Day Deep Dive on Saturday, May 20 from 10am – 5pm. Experience a slice of life aboard these floating cities with programs and performances, art-making workshops and demonstrations. See complete details here!


  1. KAY says:

    This exhibition sounds wonderful. So glad I’ll be visiting Salem in August so will get to visit PEM.

  2. joanne brasil says:

    This exhibition IS wonderful. Don’t miss it!

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